The young Tobias and his mother Rosemary are on a road trip across the Midwest when their car boils over and stalls. While they are waiting for it to cool down on the side of the road, they hear a horn approaching; they watch helplessly as a large truck, which has lost its brakes, careens around a curve. They follow the truck down the highway, and by the time they get to the cliff where the truck has gone off the road and down into a ravine, a large crowd has gathered to observe the accident. At the bottom of the valley, the truck looks “pitifully small,” and Toby’s mother comforts him as they look down at the wreckage. Once the crowd clears out, Toby knows that the “time [is] right” to make a play on his mother’s sympathies; by the time they get back on the road, he has talked her into buying him several shiny souvenirs from the rest stop.
This introduction to the memoir, rather macabre in nature, sets up the dynamic between Tobias (who is mostly called “Jack”) and his mother, and it also foreshadows the painful and “pitiful” circumstances that are awaiting the two of them. Though they don’t yet realize it, they, too have lost control of their brakes, and are careening off the edges of their own former lives, into a dark, deep, and dangerous unknown.
The year is 1955, and Toby and his mother are driving from Florida to Utah to get away from a man his mother is afraid of—they also hope to get rich on uranium and “change [their] luck.” Their car is old and overheats every few hours. Still, they press onwards; Rosemary believes that everything will change for them once they get to the West. Rosemary grew up in Beverly Hills, in the days before the stock market crash. When she was a child, her family was extremely wealthy, and she believes that in Utah, where people are frenetically mining uranium and striking it in rich, she will be able to get back the life of comfort and ease she once knew. She also hopes to make up for the time she has lost during her “long affair with a violent man” in the five years since her marriage to Toby’s father dissolved.
Rosemary’s painful past is hinted at in stages during this passage—she is fleeing a “violent man,” and believes, because of her childhood wealth, that she is bound for success and luxury despite all evidence to the contrary. The patterns of neglect and violence in Rosemary’s life are established here, if only briefly and at arm’s length, in order to foreshadow the fact that Rosemary will soon become entrapped within these cycles once again.
The day after the truck goes over the cliff, Rosemary and Toby arrive in Utah, but find they are months too late—the uranium boom has filled up all the motels and places to stay, and there are no jobs. The boom has brought violence and crime to the state, and many locals tell Rosemary to keep moving West—there is nothing for her in Utah. Rosemary, however, decides to stay and try her luck; she buys a Geiger counter and a black light, tools to track uranium traces, and they head for Salt Lake City, where she hopes to get a job with a mining company. On the drive to Salt Lake, Toby and Rosemary sing at the top of their lungs. They are excited because their journey is, they believe, near its end.
Despite the pain and bad luck they have encountered so far on their road trip, Rosemary and Jack sing in a carefree, excited manner as they continue on. Within the first chapter, Wolff has established an atmosphere of instability and fear, while managing to render the road trip through the eyes of his own youth; as a fun adventure with his mother, and as a fresh start to both their lives.